This post is the fourth in a series explaining The Balanced Runner Keys.
In my previous post in this series I explained how our footstrike obsession interferes with developing better running form and why we must move beyond it. Balanced Runner Key 2, land with a supple leg, is one alternative sensation to pay attention to that will lead you towards optimizing your footstrike in all your many varied running situations. Today I have another highly effective alternative to obsessing over your footstrike: Balanced Runner Key 3, align your foot below your hip in midstance.
In the paper by Daniel Lieberman et. al. that I linked to last week, there were three graphs showing the vertical ground reaction force for different running footstrikes. Here’s a screenshot:
The vertical axis of each graph is the vertical ground reaction force in body weights. You know how people say that when you run you hit the ground with 2-3x your body weight with each stride? This is what they’re talking about, though the description isn’t exactly accurate.
Footstrike occurs on upwards slope of each line and the impact looks different depending on the type of footstrike the runner used. But the peak of each line–the maximum vertical ground reaction force–happens after impact, at exactly the same point and equally high for all types of footstrike.
So you do support around 2.5 times your body weight each time your foot is on the ground, but it’s not at impact,when your foot hits the ground. It’s in midstance, when you’re fully on your foot, your head is at its lowest point in the gait cycle and your body is at its most compressed.
This is the moment in your gait cycle when your quadriceps work their hardest, and in fact most of your muscles peak in their activity between the instant before footstrike and midstance. Aligning yourself properly at this moment, when your body is dealing with the greatest vertical force in the entire gait cycle, makes a big difference in your running health, satisfaction, and joy.
In fact, it makes such a big difference that there’s an entire running technique developed around it, the Pose Method of Running. I don’t fully agree with it — the idea that you should actively pull your foot from the ground towards your butt is mistaken, and the lack of awareness of what goes on above the legs leads to runners cocking their heads backwards and stiffening their backs in a way that excessively stresses the calves — but any serious student of running should invest the time to read Romanov’s books and fully understand his thinking.
Now let’s look at what happens if your hip joint is behind your ankle joint in midstance. In that case, you’re experiencing a force equal to 2.5 times your body weight pushing you down to sit on the ground. It requires a lot of extra work from the quadriceps to keep this from happening! And though I have not seen any research on it, I have a hunch that one of the reasons a large overstride and heelstrike causes pain in the patellar tendon (a.k.a. runner’s knee) is that a runner who does it also has their hip behind their foot in midstance and the resulting ferocious contraction of the quadriceps irritates the tendon.
On the other hand, if your hip joint is directly above your ankle joint at midstance, your leg is like a spring being compressed. That force equal to 2.5 times your body weight is coiling you up so your body can be released forward and up by that energy. This coiling up happens to some extent if you’re running in any manner at all, but if you line yourself up right you’re better able to store the energy and use it do move you forward, rather than just trying to survive the experience without finding yourself sitting on the ground.
Furthermore, as you move into late stance and toe-off and the elastic energy stored in your tissues from footstrike to midstance begins to push you forwards and upwards, the direction of the push matters. The farther back your hip joint is at midstance, the farther back it will be at toe-off, aiming you more upwards than forwards. In other words, you won’t be able to lean properly.
Jay Dicharry uses the image of a slingshot for how this all works in running, so let me use that image as well to clarify. Your hand holding the rock is your ankle joint and the other end of the slingshot is your hip joint. Which direction do you want to aim yourself? This one:
Or this one?
Fundamentally, the sections of your gait cycle aren’t separable. That’s why it’s called a cycle–each movement is created by the forces directly preceding it and determines the movement that will come immediately after it. If your footstrike is stiff and too far in front of your body, your foot will also be too far forward at midstance and you won’t get far enough past it by toe-off. Your feet and legs will basically be creating a circle too far forward of your center of mass the entire time you run. And contrariwise, if your footstrike is supple and your hip joint is over your ankle joint at midstance, you’ll also be leaning well and aiming yourself forward rather than upward in late stance/toe off. Your feet and legs will basically be creating a circle centered underneath you.
I’ve used these little collages in previous posts on this subject, but for clarity here they are again. These runners have their hip joints behind their ankle joints in midstance:
And these runners have their hip and ankle joints properly aligned.
I’ve often thought that one of the really smart things about the Pose Method is that it focuses your attention on the moment in your gait cycle that’s easiest to feel. Because you’re experiencing 2.5 times your body weight at that moment, you get a lot of feedback in all your joints about where you are in space. While you still may not feel certain whether your foot is under you, you have a better shot at knowing what you’re doing than at any other point in your gait.
It can be difficult to try to manipulate this alignment while you’re running, but since it’s relatively easy to feel and it’s an excellent indicator of how your running form is working overall, it’s something you should check in with regularly. If you follow all the other Balanced Runner Keys you should find that your hip/ankle alignment in midstance is spot-on. If you don’t find that, re-evaluate the other keys, especially the suppleness of your leg and the easiness of your core action.
You can also benefit from doing some drills focusing on feeling this alignment. Any jumping you do in place lines you up just right, so bouncing on two feet just prior to setting off on a run can help tune your awareness and coordination for this. Jumping rope in place and even doing some fancy footwork is also a great way to practice.
Here’s a basic jump rope tutorial from my friend Tim Haft of Punk Rope:
He’s got more advanced videos on his YouTube channel as well, and since the last Balanced Runner Key is to fulfill your potential through variety, versatility and exploration, I do recommend going beyond the basics to the more complicated, coordinated stuff. That will tune up your footstrike and polish your midstance alignment to a brilliant shine.